5 February 2019

Strands of history. Fascinating F1 Facts: 68

The news that Sauber is gradually being taken over by Alfa Romeo, when it was created by Mercedes and later became the BMW F1 team, is an indication of the incestuous way in which car companies and racing teams have existed throughout the history of the sport. The same, of course, can be said of Mercedes GP, which not so long ago was Honda's F1 team, while Honda is now in bed with Red Bull Racing, which used to be Jaguar…

It was ever thus.

Back in the mists of time, Alexandre Darracq set in motion a string of curious connection along these lines. He was an engineer who worked in the French arsenal in Tarbes. In 1891 he decided that he wanted to do his own thing and left government employ to establish the Gladiator bicycle company. This was very successful but he wanted to go further and so sold the business to Adolphe Clément and Charles Chetwynd-Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who soon turned Gladiator into an automobile company called Talbot.

Darracq went his own way and started a new car business, called Darracq, aiming to mass-produce inexpensive cars for the general public. Understanding the need for good publicity, he decided to go racing and the company soon began to enjoy success in racing and in the showrooms. This led Darracq to licensing deals in other countries Opel in Germany, which had built a poor first vehicle and was looking to buy something better, and with the Italian Count Ugo Stella.

The global economy then took a downturn, which slowed progress in the luxury world of automobiles, and Darracq agreed to sell the rights to the cars to the licensees. Thus Opel went it own way, while down in Italy, Stella got together some investors and started a firm called the Anonima Lombardo Fabbrica Automobili. Darracq himself went off to do other things in life, including running the Deauville Casino and buying the celebrated Hotel Negresco in Nice, while the company bearing his name was taken over by British investors and acquired Darracq's offshoot Talbot and merged it with Sunbeam to create the Sunbeam Talbot Darracq group. This would enjoy much success in the 1920s with both Talbot and Sunbeam Grand Prix cars. Later the Talbot part of the empire would be acquired by Anthony Lago, who built Talbot Lago Grand Prix cars in the 1950s before the whole business became part of Simca and disappeared into the PSA Peugeot Citroen empire. In recent times the French conglomerate has taken over the assets of General Motors in Europe and so now also owns the Opel brand...

Meanwhile, down in Italy, Anonima Lombardo Fabbrica Automobili designed a Grand Prix car to publicise its products but this was not ready before World War I and then during the conflict the business was taken over by the Neapolitan entrepreneur, academic and politician Nicola Romeo. It was renamed Alfa Romeo.

In the 1920s its racing department - Alfa Corse - became one of the most successful racing teams, with star drivers Antonio Ascari and Giuseppe Campari. It also took on one of its young dealers, Enzo Ferrari, who never quite made it as a driver, but quickly moved into managing the team. Alfa politics ebbed and flowed and when the company decided to stop direct involvement in Grand Prix racing, the racing activities were handed over to Ferrari's eponymous Scuderia Ferrari. Later, Alfa Romeo would take the business back in-house and eventually Ferrari was fired, so he decided to get his revenge by starting his own operation and began selling road-going versions of his cars to pay for the racing.

Soon Ferrari's racing cars became a strong threat to Alfa Romeo domination in F1 and at the end of 1951 Alfa Romeo withdrew. The company would return to F1 in the 1970s and 1980s, but without much success. By then Ferrari was under Fiat control and when Alfa Romeo was also bought by Fiat, the Alfa Romeo F1 programme was axed.

In recent years, of course, Ferrari has been spun off by Fiat and so Alfa Romeo is now returning to Grand Prix racing once again… hoping to sell a few more road cars, albeit using Ferrari power units in F1.

So Ferrari began its racing activities using Alfa Romeo machinery and now the opposite is true.

Talbot, incidentally, did return to F1 briefly in the 1980s, buying the Ligier team but a new management changed the strategy and the Talbot brand disappeared, appearing these days only in faded paintwork on deserted French garages...

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